Defining Taijiquan

Defining Taijiquan

Postby Audi » Sat May 03, 2003 11:44 pm

Hi all,

On another thread there was some discussion about various responses that can be provoked by doing Taijiquan in public. This discussion, among other reasons, has prompted me to ask the following question:

You’re at a party. Something comes over you, and you happen to mention that you do Tai Chi. “What’s that,” you are asked, “something like Tae Bo or Tae Kwon Do?” Which of the following answers do you respond with?

A: It’s a martial art that’s way cooler than Tae Kwon Do.

B: It’s an art, like slow-motion ballet or dancing.

C: I do it for health. It’s like Chinese aerobics, but real slow, not at all like Tae Bo.

D: It is the physical embodiment of an ancient Chinese philosophical tradition that harmonizes the inherent tension between Yin and Yang and promotes long life and good health.

E: It’s a hobby I really like. Why do you ask?

I think I have given every combination of possible responses as I try to balance enlightening people, interesting them, boring them, misleading them, and overwhelming them. The above answers are obviously inadequate for various reasons. I am also not sure that a single canned response can even fit most potential audiences.

I would be curious as to how others deal with inquiries of this type. How do you best construct a sound bite that does appropriate justice to the art? Cocktail conversation aside, do you feel there is a one- or two-sentence description that uniquely describes or captures the spirit of Taijiquan?

Another reason I am interested in this question is that I have been reading a fascinating book on Chinese symbolism called A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought, by Wolfram Eberhard (First published in German as Lexicon chinesischer Symbole). The book has been quite informative, and I have been going through the entries alphabetically. I could not resist, however, peeking ahead at the entry for “Tai-ji” and found something that surprised me.

After a discussion of the philosophical principle for which our art is named, the entry concludes with the following:

“The same word is applied to a form of boxing which is now also known in the West. Its invention is sometimes attributed to Xu Xuan-ping (Tang Dynasty) [Has anyone heard of him?] but more often to Zhang San-feng: at all events, it has been practiced since the 16th century. [What happened in the 16th century to merit this dating?]

“The Tai-ji method seems to be a late development from the so-called Shao-lin school of boxing. Its practitioners see themselves as members of an esoteric cult.”

Putting aside the historical material put forth, how do my fellow “cultists” feel about this statement? Is there some simple description of Taijiquan that one can use to avoid fostering such dubious descriptions of our art?

Take care,
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Postby Polaris » Sun May 04, 2003 1:33 am

I, too, have Eberhard's book, and have always been amused at his description of T'ai Chi Ch'uan practitioners.

T'ai Chi Ch'uan did evolve from the Sung dynasty school that we call in the West the "Neo-Confucians." Their most famous exponents were Ch'eng Yi (1033-1107) and Chu Hsi (1130-1200). At first they were concerned with harmonizing Mencian and Confucian values in response to what they perceived as Buddhist and Taoist challenges to their orthodoxy. Eventually they espoused the slogan "The three teachings are one!" and painted all sorts of pictures of Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tzu drinking vinegar out of the same jar. This syncretism, in which the T'ai Chi T'u, our familiar yin-yang symbol, played a large part, became itself orthodoxy for the next three dynasties and was the ground for inspiring the founders of T'ai Chi Ch'uan in their work. From a Westerner's point of view all of the seemingly "metaphysical" metaphors and other trappings inherited from the "three teachings" are likely to be interpreted as religious.

Honestly, I would never voluntarily confess to people I didn't know too well, at parties or elsewhere, that I practice T'ai Chi Ch'uan. I've done so in the past, and have learned my lesson. Now, I prefer to avoid the potential awkwardness of trying to explain something so complicated in just a few sentences. There is too great a risk of boring people to tears or otherwise embarrassing myself. It is a personal thing, I suppose...
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Postby DavidJ » Sun May 04, 2003 8:20 pm

Hi Audi,

For once an easy question to field, as I have been asked it many times in many places.

The answer is usually a variation of, "It's a set of principles applied to a series of 108 postures and movements. You move slowly from one posture to the next. This set exercises every muscle and joint in the body; it's structured for self defense and it is also used as a meditation. It's quite old - from 300 years to 6,000 years old depending on whose history you believe." Image

Of course there is more to it (both the explanation and the art) than this, but if the question was asked with interest, which was often the case, this began a conversation.

David J
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Postby Wushuer » Tue May 06, 2003 3:21 pm

Inevitably, it is someone else who tells the room that you practice TCC. Usually my wife does this task for me.
I have NO idea why she does, as I've asked her repeatedly not to. Be that as it may...
What usually happens is she's deep in a conversation on the other side of the room and I'm doing something completely different, usually having a good time and a couple of drinks, talking too loudly, having fun, when I'll hear "Honey? Come over here a minute...."
That has been the beginning of what would have to amount to a time period of at least a month out of my life, if you add them all together, that I have spent trying to explain TCC to the unwashed masses.
I have, hopefully, convinced her to stop doing this and she hasn't for at least a year. I hope this continues.
I too am in the position of not wanting to answer these questions anymore. I hate to say it but I am.
It's bad enough when you have a group of polite listeners who simply accept the idea that you're a freak of nature, let you say what you are going to say about the subject, nod and smile politely and forget all about it two seconds after you've finished talking.
At least with a crowd like that it's over fast and you can go back to your partying fun.
What's worse is when you get the hard stylist in the crowd. You know the guy. He's the one who then wants to fight you, right there and then.
Na (oh, sorry, Chin Na in this style) has saved me many hours of grief in those instances where I was unable to convince the inebriated tough guy that this is neither the time or the place to be attempting to demonstrate martial arts prowess. Usually, once you've locked a joint or two and have shown them just how painful that can be, they get the idea and move on.
An equal displeasure is the hard style guy who wants to convince you verbally that your style of martial art is nothing but a dance and you can't fight with it.
I have found that smiling and agreeing with them usually keeps the situation from backsliding into the situation described above. If you try to tell them that they are wrong, 95% of them turn into hard style guy type #1 from above and the inevitable "I'll prove it to you!" leads in a circular path to the above mentioned use of Chin Na to shut down the situation, which proves your point, unfortunately it's only to someone who is usually too drunk to remember the lesson the next morning anyway.
But by far the worst people to get trapped into this conversation with are what we used to lovingly refer to as "Crystal Wavers". These are the New Age people who think TCC IS just a dance done for health and longevity with no martial aspects required or wanted in their dance routines and who carry crystals in their palms (on necklaces, in their hair, between their toes, who knows, who cares) while doing thier fluffy looking forms.
These guys are the worst possible ones to run into, in my personal humble opinion. They will go toe to toe with you right there in front of everyone and tell you that you are wrong and your brand of TCC is absolute crap.
How are you supposed to respond to this?
I have no idea. I've found a big smile and a quiet, "Let's agree to disagree, shall we?" usually just don't work.
It's amazing, those New Age folks are so pacifistic in thier TCC yet so ready to argue with you if they think you're challenging their "art".
Go figure.
I'm to the point where I am willing to simply shake my head and walk away from this argument. It's just not worth my effort anymore to try to convince people who don't want to be convinced that they're wrong.
So I practice the ultimate art of TCC, I yield, I conquer.

I doubt there is any one phrase or theory that would shut these people up once they get started. I've found the best way to get out of this situation is simply to avoid it in the first place.
If someone asks me in earnest about TCC and really wants to talk about it, I'll chew their ear off. But most folks simply don't care or if they do they want to convince you why they're right and you're wrong when it comes to TCC. These people I'm not interested in talking to at all.
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Postby Michael » Thu May 08, 2003 12:15 am

Wushuer etc.,

I really got a laugh from your new age, crystal waver example. I have been there, all I can do is laugh. I did have one woman (who did a made up style from Arizona or New Mexico) tell me that Taiji is not and was NEVER a martial art. Imagine the look on my face as I fried to choke my laughter. I never try to be rude to anyone---even when I really, really want to. Told her about Yang Lu Chan and Yang Ban Hou----she said I was making it up. She knew she was wrong but couldn't admit it--esp. in a group. I said, "I guess you caught me." She walked away.

I have never had the hard stylist who wanted to prove to me that TCC was worthless. Usually they act amused. You know---"girly man fighting". That's fine with me. I have got nothing to prove. And thankfully no drunks! Or maybe it wouldn't be so easy avoid.

I have found that when people find out I do TCC they usually have no interest at all---next subject. When interest is expressed I just say it is a martial art that most people today practice for health. I don't advertise it--others do it for me. That is OK. If one person has a real interest and I can direct them to where they can get instruction and they go---hey, that is a good thing.
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Postby Wushuer » Thu May 08, 2003 5:21 pm

Avoiding the parties with alcohol would likely keep that situation from occuring. But I would miss most of the fun parties. That particular situation has not arisen in my new location, a much more rural area than I am from originally. Not as many drunken parties down here in the south, at least not that I go to.
Up north there seemed to be a lot more hard style guys than down here. Mabye the fact that I come from a place that is known for it's exceptionally high murder rate might explain that.
But it did happen from time to time.
The New Age Crystal Wavers are a lot of fun to listen to. As you've noticed they have no clue as to the history of TCC and refuse to believe it's martial origins.
The hard style people are all convinced they are the epitome of martial prowess. Their overwhelming hubris and usually drunken bravado make them easy targets for offset and redirection.
But, it gets old very quickly and you learn the first lesson of any reputable martial art:
It's better to keep quiet and simply avoid the situation alltogether.
The ones who think you do girly-man fighting are not a problem, they just smile (or sneer) and leave you alone because they don't consider you a threat of any kind.
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Postby SteveF » Mon May 12, 2003 8:13 pm

I'm quite surprised that so many of you do NOT want to talk about Tai Chi to others. Maybe that will change for me over time, but right now I like talking to others about it. I can't imagine someone wanting to "challenge" someone who studys another martial art. Maybe that shows I haven't been around long enough. (or not going to the right parties) :-)

This is a good thread. I am still looking for a good "elevator pitch" for Tai Chi.

Sometimes I compare it to the newly popular yoga, which I say has static postures where Tai Chi has moving postures, helping to improve balance, coordination, and also is based on martial principles.
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Postby Michael » Mon May 12, 2003 8:23 pm


First thanks for the info on the teacher. A party with alcohol is one thing, a party with drunks another. I guess I am lucky in that the very few I know who get "drunk" tend to get "stupid" not aggressive/violent. I ran into enough of them in my 20s and 30s though. But the "party goers" I deal with today are "old and worn out" (HA!), have aquired some degree of "wisdom" or both....or stay at home because the state has taken away their right to drive.
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Postby Michael » Mon May 12, 2003 8:48 pm


I have no problem talking about taiji to an "interested" party. I am sure Wushuer would also, but the operative word here is "interested" party. And off to the side at one of these "parties". However if such a discussion were to occur, the uninterested ones quickly fade away and you are instantly "off to the side".

Ask that elevator occupant if they want to see you push the button with your waist---oh, you asked for a "good" line. That one might get you in trouble as I think about it. Just go into Golden Cock stands on one leg, that ought to break the ice!
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Postby Wushuer » Thu May 15, 2003 8:12 pm

I was glad to pass on the teacher info. Don't know what, if any, good would come of it. I haven't seen or heard anything from this guy in fifteen, maybe sixteen years. He did know his stuff.
Yes, "drunks" are a problem. I don't get "drunk", I drink. There's a difference.

Elevator line?
Can't help you. I have had it ingrained in my head for far too long NOT to discuss TCC with people I don't know to ever want to bring it up first.
The Academy I used to attend actually taught us to avoid the entire conversation and to completely avoid practicing in public places at any time. I have learned the logic behind this and practice it as a rule I live by.
If not for my wife telling everyone who will listen that I study this art, no one would ever know from me. Since I have finally gotten her to stop, I'm hoping it's not an issue any longer.
When I want to discuss TCC I either call my brother, who's a disciple of Wu Kwong Yu, or one of my former students who I'm still close with, also a disciple of the Wu family.
Or, I come here.
I understand the urge to discuss this wonderful art form with a lot of people, but you will come to see in time that 99 out of 100 people in the U.S. (at least) don't know what TCC is, don't want to know and don't care PLUS they honestly believe you are a freak of nature if you do.
Trust me, you will get to this point as well. Eventually.
Add to that the idea that even if they DO care, they don't know the first thing about it so talking to them about TCC is about as productive as nailing Jello to a tree.
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Postby SteveF » Fri May 16, 2003 3:48 pm

My elevator line question was simply a re-phrasing of Audi's original question. Quite often, conversation turns to health and what you do for workouts. Also discussion of aging and the fact that yoga has become more popular are IMO nice opportunities to share this art with others.

I can't imagine anyone thinking you are a freak if it's presented in the right way. Discussions of chi flow or fa-jing should probably be left out from your discussion if they are not practitioners.

It's too bad that in this country we can't simply find some open space and play without fear of "what will people think". For the uninformed who would ridicule, it's fear of the unknown. Maybe we should try to educate more people about what it is we are doing ...

If there's a surveillance camera at the elevator at work, they must get quite a chuckle when I find myself alone in the elevator. Ever try staying in "Golden Rooster" position during the ride to your floor? Or doing "Snake Creeps Down" as the elevator stops going down? :-)
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Postby DavidJ » Fri May 16, 2003 9:10 pm

Hi All,

I've done Tai Chi Chuan outdoors, in public places, in many states, and a few Canadian Provinces, and it's never been a problem.

David J
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Postby Wushuer » Fri May 16, 2003 9:45 pm

I, too, have practiced outdoors many times without any problems, because at those times I avoided being outside directly in the public eye.
The times I've tried to do TCC outdoors in the public eye are the times I have had problems.
I recently went to Ft. Lauderdale, FL and attempted to practice on the beach. I have never practiced TCC on sand before and was kind of looking forward to the opportunity.
I got about five minutes of practice in before I had someone interupt me and ask me what I was doing, why I was doing it, etc., etc., ad nauseum. He was a hard style guy who was fascinated by TCC, wondered if that was what I was doing and then wouldn't leave me alone until I gave him a link to a local school down there that teaches Chen style.
I never did get to practice on the sand, as I only had the one day at the beach.
That's why I make it a rule not to practice in public places, as much as any of the above listed scenarios.
It's not always someone who thinks your a nutter, sometimes they are really curious and have legitimate questions. That's fine with me, as long as I have the time to answer those questions and still do my practice. It's times like that, when I had limited time to do my thing and that time got all eaten up by someone asking me about what I was doing instead of letting me do it, that lead to my standing rule, endorsed, practiced and taught by my old school because of very similar problems others had, of finding a private spot to practice.
If you are OK with these kinds of interuptions, then rock on and more power to you. I would never say a word against it, have no problem with it.
It's been my experience that when in public trying to do TCC, you never end up actually doing too much TCC.
That's all the point I'm trying to make.
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Postby Michael » Sun May 18, 2003 4:03 am


Though I prefer not to practice in "public" if possible, it has never been a problem. I have done barehand and sword sets in campgrounds all over Montana and Idaho and no one ever interupted me or just stood there and stared. Know that I try to pick places where I am not the center of attention, but sometimes It can't be avoided, then I try make the time of day a factor. I have done sets in maybe sixty motel/hotel parking lots in the early morning or at night. Sometimes I notice people watching from their room windows. People walking by to their cars or semis do their best not to even look at you, I think mostly out of respect--rather than fear that you are a nut. It is a pretty rare thing that anyone ever says anything. The ones that ask always have gone to their cars or somewhere (out of my vison) and waited until I was finished.

To be honest, I don't really care if someone interuppts me, it is just a set, and I can carry on, start again, or do it later. I rarely do less than two sets when I (really) practice anyway. I don't consider "limited time" a factor. If I have expectations of how I am going to use that(or any) time I can almost always count on something to mess it up. That is how it is with expectations. So I try not to have ANY. Never disappointed. If I do get annoyed (and I do), I figure it is my fault, not anothers.

Make it good!
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